What Negotiation Science Can Tell Us about the Coronavirus Pandemic

How can negotiation strategies and research assist leaders in making informed decisions in times of crisis and uncertainty?

What can negotiation science tell us about the coronavirus crisis? 

It cannot tell us much about incubation periods or medical treatments.

But negotiation scientists know a few things about the difficulty governments around the world are facing in weighing their response to the outbreak. Leaders must plan, execute, monitor, and adjust large-scale interventions in complex systems in an extremely short period of time.

When policymakers intervene in a complex system—think about a health care system, an economic system, or a transportation system—the effects of that intervention may not be readily apparent. This is because a complex system is not greater than, but rather different from, the sum of its individual parts.

Designing effective interventions in complex systems usually takes years. However, the coronavirus pandemic forces political leaders to make quick decisions on incomplete information. Scientists are under pressure to produce immediate results.

A fast-moving chain of ill-conceived actions might not only fail to yield immediate positive change; it could, at worst, trigger a series of costly, damaging side effects.

Three key insights from negotiation research can help leaders make sound decisions in times of immense pressure and uncertainty:

First, many decision effects will be indirect. For example, because the virus forced China to shut down many of its factories, that country’s carbon dioxide emissions in early 2020 were 25% lower than during the same time last year. Through this indirect effect, climate scientists may have the chance to improve their simulation models, since such drastic measures as the ones recently implemented in China are usually not observable.

Second, many decision effects will be delayed. Rather than expecting a sudden “game changer” in the daily news, we must realize that weeks and months will pass before the impact of social distancing measures becomes clear. Interventions in complex systems require both smart action and strategic patience.

Third, many decision effects will be unintended. As we move our work and personal lives online and create new spaces for virtual collaboration, the shift to the cybersphere brings increased opportunities for hackers to steal our personal data and intercept our electronic communication. While second- and third-order policy effects may not be priorities in a time of crisis, decision makers must be aware of all consequences of a policy as they shape future legislation.

By anticipating some of these unintended decision effects, leaders can develop strategies that harness their potential and mitigate their risks. Understanding a few insights from negotiation, decision-making, and complex systems research can thus help bring effective policy solutions to global challenges like the spread of COVID-19.

Lecturer on Government, Harvard University

Arvid Bell is a scholar and entrepreneur who specializes in negotiation strategy, crisis leadership, and international security.